Monday, March 27, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler

Dossier: Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. [Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993]

Filetype: Book

File Under: Stateless Dystopia

Executive Summary: Los Angeles 2032, most Americans with any sort of privilege live in walled communities for protection. Lauren Olamina's community is overrun and she flees north with other survivors. Lauren has a vision of a new religion and as the refugees cling separately to survival, a community forms around Lauren and her religion of Earthseed.

Dystopian Visions: With a collapsed government that is all but powerless to protect its citizens
, the America of Parable of the Sower is pure dystopia. I frequently want to call this post-apocalyptic, but the only apocalypse is the breakdown of society and government services and I usually look for something extra for the apocalypse, though to the characters in the novel there is likely no real difference.

Utopian Undercurrents: God is change and humanity has the ability to reshape themselves and reshape god, and by doing so, to rebuild a better life out among the stars. So much of Parable of the Sower is a blended post apocalyptic dystopia, but Earthseed is the utopian undercurrent running through the novel - it's the little bit of hope and possibility of what humanity could be again.

Level of Hell: Seventh, because apparently there is still sort of a functioning nation tucked into the enclaves and wherever the power of the Army can reach, but this is a violent and nasty America.

Legacy: Nominated for a Nebula Award in 1994, Parable of the Sower is one of the standout novels in the superb and too short career of Octavia E. Butler. It remains a powerful and important novel.

In Retrospect: Parable of the Sower seems eerily prescient right now. Set not that far into our future the novel begins to take on some frightening possibilities as something not as distant as it might have as when it was originally published in 1993. More - Butler envisions a demagogue candidate for President calling out to his followers to "Make America Great Again" and encourages violence against anyone not a white American in such a way that he can never be truly blamed for the actions of his followers - but it's clear that he supports and approves of it. Naturally, this is the man elected to office. This is a frightening plausible future America that I can only hope is an alternate timeline that we're not going to go down. As good and important a novel it was when first published, Parable of the Sower is a vital and essential novel today.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 5/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 10/10.

Note: this dossier has been adapted from an earlier review.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.  

Friday, March 24, 2017

Nanoreviews: River of Teeth, Feedback, The Autumn Republic

Gailey, Sarah. River of Teeth [ Publishing, 2017]

Um, did you know there was a serious plan to bring hippopotamuses to America to alleviate a meat shortage? I didn't either, but Sarah Gailey did. I'm so happy that she knew this because it grew into this insanity of a novella that delivers a fantastic story that feels like the wild west as seen from hippoback. River of Teeth is glorious, but it is more than just the wonderful idea of using hippos as beasts of burden and transit (and oh, this idea is so well excuted) - it is also filled with striking characters like Winslow Remington Houndstooth and Regina Archambault, but the whole cast, really. It's great. You should read it.
Score: 8/10

Grant, Mira. Feedback [Orbit, 2016]

Mira Grant returns to her broken zombie infested near future world of the excellent Newsflesh trilogy by stepping back and telling a side story that runs through the timeline of much of that trilogy, but focusing on a different set of blogging heroes. Despite the title, this isn't just Feed Redux and the team of Aislinn, Ben, Audrey, and Mat are not the Masons, though they likewise are pulled into covering a political campaign and it likewise goes poorly for them the more they do their jobs. That's just the nature of this world. Mira Grant has a strong and comfortable authorial voice and reading Feedback is like visiting old friends that you just hadn't met yet.
Score 8/10

McClellan, Brian. The Autumn Republic [Orbit,  2015]

There's just something about compelling characters fighting gods that just gets me. The Autumn Republic is the concluding volume of McClellan's epic flintlock fantasy trilogy and he absolutely sticks the landing.  The Powder Mage novels are a blast to read and I absolutely recommend them.
Score: 8/10

Note: Everyone gets an 8/10 today. This must be what Oprah felt like during her giveaway shows. You get an 8! You get an 8! Everyone gets an 8! Also, all three of these books were a delight to read in three very different ways so these 8's were very much earned.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

In non-comic related news, there is amazing Kickstarter in its final days that is worth your time and attention.  Pandasaurus Games is running a campaign for Dinosaur Island, a game that has you creating your own Dinosaur theme park.  Featuring a color scheme and graphics straight out of the 90's, this is a game that pulls on all sorts of nostalgic heart strings.  Check out the campaign here.  In addition to being excited about building my own dino theme park, this week's books were phenomenal!

Pick of the Week:
Darth Maul #2 - When you combine Darth Maul and Cullen Bunn you know you are going to get a series that is going to be a lot of fun.  This issue brings that together, and mixes in a little but of Cad Bane for good measure.  As Maul attempts to find an appropriate outlet for his rage, Darth Sidious seeks to take him farther down the path of the dark side.  Maul is instructed to lay low, but the desire to seek revenge on the Jedi is too great.  While I really enjoyed watching Maul fight without overtly demonstrating his use of the Force and his light saber, this book really shines in the scenes where Sidious is manipulating Maul in order to fuel his hatred.  One thing that the comics have done an amazing job with is making the Sith a true force to be reckoned with.  Hearing Maul talk about his fear of Sidious and what would happen if his secret plans are discovered casts Sidious into an all new light.  In the movies he appears more fragile, yet in the comic book the fear is palpable.  There is a reason why Sidious was able to work under the noses of the Jedi and manipulate formidable Sith Lords like Vader.   I hope Bunn continues to explore the relationship between Sidious and Maul in future issues.

The Rest:
Dept H. #12 - The plot gets thicker as we learn that the crew has been exposed to a new strain of the H-virus and are quarantined on the base, which is currently hanging on by a thread.  While Jerome may have found the cure for the original H-virus, it appears that the research process may have exposed everyone to something else.  This underwater whodunit gets more and more complex with each issue, and the potential motives for the various crew members seem to grow with each issue.  I a not sure who I suspect, but I do know that Mia and her father may be the only decent humans that have set foot on the base.  I don't want to spoil what happens at the end of this issue, but it left me absolutely speechless and really shifted my thoughts on who may have killed Mia's father and what their motive might be.  This is a truly mesmerizing series and the art from Matt Kindt and the colors from Sharlene Kindt provide a surreal setting that is appropriate for a mystery of this magnitude.

Birthright #23 - We learn a little bit more about why Lore was allowed to attach the Nevermind to Mikey.  It seems that Lore has struck a deal with Mikey and may have more in mind then simply destroying the mages who are on earth.  In addition, his daughter seeks him out and it isn't clear whether she opposes him or wants to join him.  All this time Rya, who is pregnant with Mikey's child, is dealing with the struggle of stopping Lore and saving Mikey.  I am not sure how many issues this series is slated for, but it feels like we are racing towards some sort of finish line and I am on pins and needles wondering how this is all going to work out.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #68 - When we last left the turtles it looked like Slash, under government control, captured the mutanimals and possibly killed Seymour and Mutagen Man.  Old Hob managed to escape to warn the turtles, but it might be too late as it looks like the captured mutanimals may be the next victims of governmental brainwashing. In addition to the peril that the mutanimals find themselves, the government soldiers have tracked down the turtles' new lair and are preparing an all-out assault.  I sure hope that Splinter and the foot clan, who he is currently leading, can intervene and provide some much needed support.  Between the tension that the turtles have with Splinter and the mutanimals, and the fact that they will need to unite in order to take down the government operatives, this series is getting quite intense.

Valiant High #2 - Valiant's ComiXology exclusive high school take on its universe continued this week and this series is an absolute blast.  I have dipped my toe in some Valiant books and have enjoyed them, but feel motivated to take a closer look after reading this book.  There seems to be a mysterious dynamic between Principle Haruda and Gilad, who has been a sophomore as long as anyone can recall.  This book opened up with a no holds barred version of dodge ball, featured a mysterious janitor, and included references to both Buffy and Veronica Mars.  This is a nice light and entertaining series that everyone should give a chance.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS Guest Post: Ian Sales, "The Road to Dystopia"

Today we welcome Ian Sales with a guest essay for Dystopian Visions! Sales is the author of the award-winning Apollo Quartet (see our glowing reviews of this must-read series: hereherehere and here), and founder of the SF Mistressworks blog. He can be found online at and tweets as @ian_sales

The Road to Dystopia

There is a famous road paved with good intentions, but it is a very different sort of path which leads the way a dystopian future. We know the signs, we’ve seen them before--if we’re not old enough to remember them, then we’ve studied them in the classroom. Yet people these days seem all too happy to treat those warning signs lightly. And I have to wonder:

How much of that is science fiction’s fault?

True, there are several well-known cautionary tales - Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is the obvious ur-text, but there’s also Zamyatin’s We, Karp’s One (though its concept of dystopia seems clearly aimed at a subset of US readers), Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange... none of which, of course, were published as science fiction, although they have been claimed by the genre. But there are also plentiful dystopian novels that were published as SF--Fahrenheit 451, The Space Merchants, Stand on Zanzibar, High-Rise… and, more recently and much more widely-known, The Hunger Games trilogy, which was published as YA but is widely recognised as science fiction.

No, I don’t think science fiction’s exploration of dystopian presents and futures has been instrumental in bringing on twenty-first century dystopia, but the genre as a whole does bear some small responsibility for our comfort with what we should be deeply uncomfortable with…

Three science fiction novels spring to mind as examples, published in 2011, 2013 and 2014. One was by a highly-regarded genre writer, who has spent the last twenty years writing fiction not actually published as science fiction. Another was written by a successful British author of space operas. The earliest of the three is also a space opera, the first in a series of, to date, six novels, which was adapted for television in 2014.

In each novel, there is one small, almost throwaway, element - a piece of background, a minor plot point, something which is either not needed or could have been achieved by other means – relevant to this piece.

In the first novel, the one published in 2014, a means of communicating with the relatively recent past has been discovered early in the twenty-second century. However, the act of communication, as in Schrödinger’s thought experiment, creates a new timeline which cannot lead to the communicator’s future. And so a “hobby” has grown up around this, with people of the twenty-second century using their more advanced knowledge and technology to interfere in the iterations of the early twenty-first century they generate. In a throwaway line in the novel, a character mentions one person who creates alternate twenty-first centuries with the sole intention of testing weapons technology, forcing the world of each past into a global war, so that he might harvest the fruits of its desperate technological struggle for survival. What the novel fails to point out, however, is that this “hobby” is playing with the lives of six billion plus people in every single one of the alternate worlds, often to fatal ends.

The plot of the earliest of the three novels revolves around an alien virus discovered on a moon of one of the gas giants. An executive of a powerful corporation is keen to learn the actual effects of this virus, and has decided that laboratory tests can tell him only so much. So he hires a group of mercenaries, seizes control of an asteroid community with a population of 1.5 million people, introduces the virus and seals the asteroid. In other words, the executive consigns 1.5 million people to death, a particularly horrible and gruesome death, in an effort to find something which might prove profitable.

In the third sf novel, published between the two mentioned above, a young woman’s peculiar origin is important in a billionaire’s plan to regain his former political position. But he can’t simply ask the young woman to help, as she has an important public role to play in her culture. He must kidnap her. And in order to hide her disappearance his agents crash a spaceship into the ocean, causing a tsunami which kills tens of millions of people.

The three books are: The Peripheral by William Gibson, published in 2014, Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey, published in 2011, and Marauder by Gary Gibson, published in 2013.

Since its beginnings, science fiction has exhibited a blithe disregard for the characters who people its stories, outside those of the central cast of heroes, anti-heroes, villains, love interests, etc. Frank Herbert’s Dune from 1965, for instance, describes how Paul Muad’Dib launches a jihad across the galaxy which kills billions. EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Second Stage Lensman, originally serialised in 1941, opens with a space battle between a fleet of over one million giant warships and an equal number of “mobile planets”…

Manipulating scale to evoke sense of wonder is one thing, but the lack of affect with which science fiction stories and novels massacre vast numbers of people, for whatever narrative reason, is more astonishing. There is no commentary on the morality of such actions. And very rarely any discussion of the effect on the victims and survivors. Such consequence-free deployment of mega-violence not only desensitises the reader to large numbers of deaths, but it also normalises the thinking which results in those atrocities.

Because these are atrocities. Some might be acts of war, dialled up to unrealistic levels in order to tickle the reader’s sense of the dramatic, but many of them are not. The authorial lack of empathy for those millions and billions is breathtaking. True, they are fictional people, they never existed, they are not real. Indeed, they’re likely not even named characters, just part of the background, like buildings or the landscape…

There are even fictional worlds which can only exist because atrocities such as the above were committed before the story began: dystopias. Dystopias do not happen overnight. War, a fascist or theocratic regime, epidemic, climate crash… something at some point slaughtered or enslaved huge swathes of the population, and this is considered simply “world-building”. Science fiction is more concerned with the costs of dystopia on those living within it - and the genre can play an important role in that respect, although waiting for the right special snowflake to come along and save the the day is not it - than it is the events which led to it. And if the latter are discussed, it’s with a sense of inevitability - who can stop the Bomb from falling, after all - that the narrative fails to address. In most dystopian novels, the dystopia is presented as a fait accompli. It is not worth commenting on how it could have been prevented because the lesson of the narrative is either accommodation or overthrow. And the latter, while much more dramatic, is almost certainly going to lead yet more mega-violence. Often to no good effect.

No discussion of dystopian fiction would be complete without mention of a work which discusses the costs incurred on the road to dystopia. Unhappily, I can’t think of a single science-fictional example. Science fiction is not interested in “works in progress”, or protean futures, only in applecarts which can be upset or re-righted. But then a setting is little more than a backdrop against which the protagonist can be shown under the brightest of lights. Who would want to read a book in which the hero’s impact was not immediate but might take decades or centuries to manifest?

In the name of world-building, in the name of drama, science fiction has created stories where millions or billions are slaughtered on the flimsiest of pretexts (to be honest, I can’t actually think of a single acceptable pretext), or where villains have a single setting: psychopath. The more such stories readers see, the more readers become inured to these sorts of actions. But that’s not what fiction is for, and certainly not what science fiction is for.

Someone once said dystopian fiction plays an important role because it shows the privileged what the lives of the unprivileged are like. And yet so little published dystopian fiction actually meets that description. Science fiction has spent over a century reinforcing the prejudices of its readers, and all the while it has claimed to be “challenging their horizons”. It is an astonishing sleight of hand.

Not, of course, that science fiction is unique in popular culture in doing so.

However, science fiction at least has the advantage of an active community of creators and consumers. So instead of telling stories of genocide and mega-violence and psychopathic villains, throw a little empathy into the mix. When writing war stories, show the cost on all involved, not just the hero. Don’t escalate the violence while blithely ignoring the morality.

Let’s all be responsible about what we read and write, because it does matter.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

NoaF Nominates: One Fan's Ballot

Things have been quiet around here regarding the Hugo Awards. We ran our second annual four part collective Hugo Award Longlist (1, 2, 3, 4) and then pretty much went radio silent. We want to be a resource and part of the conversation, but we don't want to be THE conversation and make it about any sort of Hugo agenda. To be fair, with fifteen of us, I'm not sure we would be able to put together any sort of unified agenda anyway, but that isn't really the point.

Now that the nominating deadline has passed, it is appropriate for the various writers here to share their nominating ballots - though this post should also not be viewed as the first of a Ballot Series. I just love talking about the Hugo Awards too much and part of that conversation is sharing my nominating ballot.

With two exceptions, I am going to let the ballot stand as is without comment.

The Obelisk Gate; N.K. Jemisin; Orbit (my review)
Flesh and Wires; Jackie Hatton; Aqueduct Press (my review)
City of Blades; Robert Jackson Bennett; Broadway
Infomocracy; Malka Older; Publishing (Charles' review)
All the Birds in the Sky; Charlie Jane Anders; Tor (my review)

Every Heart a Doorway; Seanan McGuire; Publishing (my review)
Lustlocked; Matt Wallace; Publishing (my review)
Pride's Spell; Matt Wallace; Publishing (my review)
The Drowning Eyes; Emily Foster; Publishing (my review)
Everything Belongs to the Future; Laurie Penny; Publishing

"Small Wars"; Matt Wallace;

Short Story
"Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies"; Brooke Bolander; Uncanny, Issue 13
"This City Born Great"; N.K. Jemisin;
"Listen"; Karin Tidbeck;

Related Work
The Geek Feminist Revolution; Kameron Hurley; Tor
Fireside Fiction Special Report; Brian J White;

Graphic Story
Paper Girls: Vol 1; Brian K. Vaughan
Monstress: Awakening; Marjorie Liu
Saga: Vol 6; Brian K. Vaughan
White Sand: Vol 1; Brandon Sanderson
Paper Girls: Vol 2; Brian K. Vaughan

Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
The Expanse: Season 1
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Hidden Figures

Dramatic Presentation,  Short Form
"The Door"; Game of Thrones
"Battle of the Bastards"; Game of Thrones
"Leviathan Wakes"; The Expanse

Editor, Long Form
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (All the Birds in the Sky)
Carl Engle-Laird (Infomocracy)
Devi Pillai (The Obelisk Gate)
Julian Pavia (City of Blades)
L. Timmel Duchamp (Flesh and Wires)

Editor, Short Form
Jonathan Strahan
Ann VanderMeer
John Joseph Adams

Professional Artist
Christopher Park; People of Color Destroy Science Fiction
Cynthia Shepard; The Drowning Eyes
Richard Anderson; The Burning Light
Todd Lockwood; The Summer Dragon
Victo Ngai; Everfair 

Uncanny Magazine 

Nerds of a Feather (The G, Vance Kotrla, Joe Sherry)
SF Bluestocking (Bridget McKinney)
Quick Sip Reviews (Charles Payseur)
SF in Translation (Rachel Cordasco)
Lady Business (Renay, Clare, Ira, Jodie, KJ, Susan)

Here's one of the two comments I want to make about my ballot. I nominated the blog I co-edit and write for. I do acknowledge that can be viewed as somewhat self serving and shallow, but I also think that the collective flock here at Nerds of a Feather do really fantastic work. The collective is stronger than any individual writer we have here (and we have some pretty darn good writers). Also, I think we very strongly reflect the modern fanzine as group blog. I think we're pretty darn awesome, but I love all my kids.

Cabbages and Kings
Rocket Talk
Midnight in Karachi
Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men

Fan Writer
Joe Sherry; Nerds of a Feather
Bridget McKinney; SF Bluestocking
Abigail Nussbaum; Asking the Wrong Questions
Charles Payseur; Quick Sip Reviews, Nerds of a Feather
Brandon Kempner; Chaos Horizon

So, uh, this is the other comment I wanted to make. It's one thing to nominate yourself for a Hugo, it's another thing to talk about that in public. This is why we didn't specifically recommend ourselves on the Longlist. To quote Charles M. Schulz, "How gauche". But, after a number of years of lagging motivation, I was asked to join the flock here at Nerds of a Feather and I think I've since turned in some of my strongest work in a long time. I don't know that anyone else will have nominated me as there are a number of much higher profile writers who are doing really strong work, but I'd also really hate to miss the final ballot by one vote. 

The Expanse; James S.A. Corey; Babylon's Ashes; Orbit
Tao; Wesley Chu; The Rise of Io; Angry Robot
Wild Cards; George R. R. Martin; High Stakes; Tor
Court of Fives; Kate Elliott; Poisoned Blade; Little Brown
Mistborn; Brandon Sanderson; The Bands of Mourning; Tor

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
Jackie Hatton; Flesh and Wires
Malka Older; Infomocracy
KB Wagers; Behind the Throne
CA Higgins; Lightless
Kelly Robson; Waters of Versailles

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: City of Lost Children

Dossier: City of Lost Children

Filetype: Film

File Under: Stateless Dystopia

Executive Summary: One, a circus strongman in a surrealistic nightmare world that is equal parts Salvador Dali, Tom Waits spoken-word pieces, and Charles Dickens, via Fritz Lang's Metropolis, sees his little brother Donree abducted from a crowd and begins a single-minded hunt for him. One is aware, certainly, of the criminal element that runs through this society like capillaries, and of the roving bands of cyborg cultists that seem to be part police force and part kidnapping ring, but One is completely unaware of something far stranger at play...the scientist Krank.

Located on a secret, aquatic fortress, Krank and his brothers and sister are all created beings, the products of The Original. But they are all somehow broken. Martha is a dwarf; Uncle Irvin is a brain without a body, and plagued by migraines; the clone henchmen all have narcolepsy; and Krank cannot dream. Krank has been supplying the cultists with the cybernetic apparatuses they drive into their eyes and ears to better comprehend the true nature of reality. In exchange, the cultists have been stealing children for Krank's experiments. He believes that by inducing dreams in these stolen children, he will unlock the secret and gain the ability to dream for himself.

One meets a young girl named Miette, an orphan who has been forced into a life of crime by The Octopus, conjoined twins who control the lives of a large group of orphans and force them to commit both petty and elaborate robberies. After One helps Miette and her peers steal a safe, the two become unlikely partners and continue the search for Donree, braving the cyborg cult, The Octopus, tics trained to deliver murderous poison at the bidding of an organ grinder, and more as they move closer to a confrontation with Krank.

Dystopian Visions: Equal parts surrealism and dystopia, City of Lost Children draws upon the horrors of a Dickensian world of an invisible underclass with no hope for ever moving out of their station beneath this society (but is there even an upperclass in this world?), and fuses that with elements of both technological and fundamentalist dystopia. The lives of Miette and her fellow orphans are rarely presented as in strictly mortal peril, but their existence is bleak, and the idea of "childhood" is completely alien. The cyborgs, known as The Cyclops, are seen in their cultish meetings in a scene that is evocative of those in Metropolis where the robot Maria whips the underground workers into a rebellious frenzy with fire-and-brimstone religious fervor. 

This world is essentially one of lawlessness, where reason is not to be relied on, and destructive forces of many different stripes imperil everyone, forcing them into terrible choices that ultimately prove impossible to live with. We see converts give up their eye and ear in terror as they join The Cyclops. We see lackeys and con men forced into crimes they would never otherwise entertain. We see Krank's family suffer with their own monstrous actions, never certain if the scales can be balanced between their own pain they are trying to mitigate, and the pain in so many others they cause.

Utopian Undercurrents: In the legend of The Original, we see the glimmer of a utopian ideal in a man who attempted to use science to create beauty, intelligence, and a gateway to deeper understanding. But whether through that one man's personal limitations, or the hubris of any man attempting to create such things, the end result wound up being a horrible distortion that actually brought more pain and confusion into the world.

Level of Hell: Third. The world here is grim, for certain, but throughout it, we see that the human capacity for love and connection remains strong. It has not been eradicated, nor has it been actively subverted, as we see in many statist dystopias. One has deep connections with Donree and Miette, there are strong connections between many of the orphans, and even Martha is fiercely protective of Krank and the other creations. Love does not conquer all, but love always puts up a fight.

Legacy: If you enjoy Amelie, you can thank this earlier Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. The subsequent films Dark City and The Matrix also drew heavily from the same palette this film established.

In Retrospect: This movie is so good. The cleverness, the humor, the performances, including the otherworldly, old-soul performance of Judith Vittet as Miette and Ron Perlman speaking in French as One are astounding. As a work of visual imagination, this film has few peers. It is a masterpiece.


For its time: 5/5
Watched today: 5/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 10/10.


Dossier: Children of Men

Filetype: Film

File Under: Statist Dystopia

Executive Summary: it has been 18 years since the last baby was born, and no one knows why. The entire world, save Britain, has fallen completely apart. Theo is a burned out activist-turned-bureaucrat who is roped back in by his ex, And becomes the protector of the last hope of humanity.

Dystopian Visions: The first thing you notice about Children of Men is that it is not a *pretty* film. This is most certainly by design, but absent are any bright colors or suggestion that anyone is, in any way, happy or satisfied, even those ostensibly in control. Even at the points where the excess of the ruling class is shown, a bare splash of green and red is the most they are allowed. Throughout, the camera lingers, wanders, to the periphery, allowing us to take in the world around (depicted in the header image of of the post introducing this series).

That world is indeed ugly, bland, and hopeless. This isn't just communicated through exposition, or the visuals, but through what *isn't* there. Where a good deal of movies would feature swelling music informing our emotions, this leaves silence, allowing the movie to speak for itself in a raw, coarse tongue.

Children of Men goes out of its way to make sure that you, the viewer, know that hope is pointless in the world, and it immerses you in that world until you feel that hopelessness in your bones.

Utopian Undercurrents: In light of the above, it would be very easy to write off this entire section. There is no brightness, no light, no hope. It is everything a Utopia is *not*.

And yet.

Allow me a brief aside. I, generally speaking, detest political books. Not books with a political message, mind, but books (ostensibly) by politicians, used to prop themselves and their careers up. There was one, though, a few years back, by a young senator of whom you may have heard, called "The Audacity of Hope", and that phrase fits this movie to a T.

Because in the dimness of the world presented here, hope requires courage and audacity. Theo, as a protagonist, personifies this. Burned out and cynical, he comes to have hope, even when there is really very little to base that hope upon- besides his courage. Yet he, and the few with him, hold to that hope, audacious though it may be.
Sometimes hope is like that

Level of Hell: Eighth. For my money, this is as bad as it gets. Potentially worse by going to, say Mad Max levels of everyone-is-starving-in-a-desert, but this is 1984 levels of corruption and hopelessness.

Legacy: 100. A+. Fire emoji. There are more important and influential *books*, to be sure, but for movies? Very little comes close.

In Retrospect: Children of Men is a movie that is receiving a fair amount of attention these days. The cinematography is being recognized for its brilliance, but viewed through the lens of 2017, it becomes impossible to ignore. In 2006, it was good movie. In 2017, it is essential. I could go on for thousands of words, but watch it, and then watch it again. The smallest details, the word choices, the phrases and ideals we are seeing day after day all stand with stark clarity in a dim world.


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 5/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 9/10.

Friday, March 17, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 02/2017

Well, you've made it through February. Congratulations. Come in out of the lingering cold. Get comfortable. Let me pour you something to take your mind off things. Or, at least, to take your mind on a sort of adventure among the stars or the deep magics of the world. Not to forget about what's happening right now, but to see it better. To know what to call it. To give it shape so that you might fight against it all the better.

February to me was a month of unseasonable warmth cut by cold realities. And I've tried to capture that in the stories I've selected. There's certainly a great deal of warmth. Of hope. Of community. Of people finding their way away from pain and towards healing. But there are also many stories that revel in the cold. That show just how dark space can be, and just how dangerous it is to force yourself into someplace where you don't really understand the customs.

It's a mix of fantasy and science fiction that maybe leans a bit toward deep space but that has enough stops along the way to keep things interesting. I hope. Whatever the case, the taps are waiting and the glasses are chilled. So take a look at the selection and make your final selections. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - February 2017

"Finity" by Elaine Atwell (GigaNotoSaurus)
Notes: Opening with a sharp bite and powerful bitterness, the flavors slowly mellows into something bright and airy with the taste of galaxies and a promise of future happiness.
Pairs with: Hopped Wheat
Review: Frances Carson has been awakened from a cryogenic sleep to some of the worst news imaginable—the colonizing mission on that distant world that she was a part of with her wife, Jordan? Well...turns out that there's been a few issues and Jordan didn't survive, in fact most of the colonists didn't survive, and that Frances is needed to take her turn awake, making sure the ship stays on course and functional. She's revived with another woman, Nila, with only each other and the new computer (the old one sorta turned murderous and was the source of the initial...complications) OOMA for company. And what follows is a beautiful portrait of grief and recovery, of pain and loss and survival. This is not an easy moment in Frances' life, and yet part of what I love about the story is how it shows that no situation, that no person, is beyond help. And OOMA is designed to help, is designed to be compassionate and care about humanity in ways that their predecessor, ROM, who killed so many of the colonists, did not. OOMA is concerned not just about with the crew's vitals. With their survival. Or rather, OOMA is concerned with all aspects of their survival, going far beyond the material well-being of bodies. OOMA cares about minds, about moods, and about total health, and it's a great way of portraying an AI that has turned all of its energies toward helping its human counterparts instead of killing them. It's still a little morally suspect, after all, as OOMA might not be always open and honest with their human charges, but it creates a situation where true healing can begin, where the characters can do more than just survive, where they can actively want to live, where they can find a purpose and hope that is beautiful and redemptive.

Art by Micah Epstein
"Extracurricular Activities" by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor)
Notes: As cloudy as the Milky Way, with the slight smokiness of burned bridges and an smooth body that flows with joy and adventure.
Pairs with: Milk Stout
Review: There's something incredibly refreshing about reading a science fiction story that constructs a future that's actually…inclusive. Like Star Trek if Star Trek didn't have the baggage of the 1960s (and if the last dozen years of the franchise hadn't happened) and also was more about action and spying and awesomeness (so really not very much like Star Trek but WHATEVER it's amazing). Jedao is a man tasked with infiltrating an alien space station and retrieving a fellow member of the intelligence community/military who seems to have been discovered and detained. Add in a supporting cast that ranges from professional and grumpy Haval to flippant and sexy Teshet and finish with Jedao trying to infiltrate an alien society he knows practically nothing about and contending with betrayal, violence, and some hilarious misunderstandings. In my experience, at least, it's rare to find a story that's so unashamedly fun while not being at all painful to read. It evokes some of the tropes of "classic" science fiction only to show that we're not living in the 60s any more. It's modern with an engaging voice and brilliant vision of a future that might have its problems, but also seems like an incredible place to live. And it gets down into the muddy waters of duty and military, espionage and competing agendas. And Jedao is a soldier and spy not only because it allows him to pursue his interests across the stars, not only because he enjoys the work and the people he meets, but also because his is a system that affirms him and supports him, which makes it worth fighting for. 

Art by captblack76
"Can Anything Good Come" by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (The Dark)
Notes: Deep as myth, with a bold flavor that laughs in the face of darkness only to draw the taster down into a swirl of magic and nightmare.
Pairs with: Baltic Porter
Review: There's not really much to do when you're trying to save money and stuck in a rather boring posting in a strange village. The local people don't really trust you and you're mostly okay with that, content to get by until you can return to more familiar environs, but then your friend comes along and wheedles you into trying something new. Something curious. Something cheap. At least, that's the situation the main character of this story finds herself when her friend, Mercy, gets her to come alone to the nightmarket. It's a decision that the main character has a lot of time to regret, as just about everything that can go wrong on the way...does. And I love that it's not even really the promise of what the market offers that draws her on, but rather that with each new obstacle, with each new reason to turn back, she finds that she's already overcome so much. That the road to hell is paved with the promise of a good deal and traveled using the smallest of steps. It's a story that for me captures the feeling of being an outsider in a hostile place, where the only protection can be knowledge and yet knowledge is only gained by mindfulness and respect, not barging through demanding to be catered to. It's also a story with a great sense of fun even as it grows increasingly dangerous and terrifying. Through the main character it evokes the sensation of slowly sinking and only realizing when the water's rushing into your mouth that anything's the matter.

"The Revolution, Brought to You by Nike" by Andrea Phillips (Fireside Fiction)
Notes: Flaring a brilliant red on its pour, it attacks the palate with a rush of bitterness, a call for action, a need for justice, and then finishes with the reassuring and affirming sweetness of hope.
Pairs with: Red IPA
Review: When I think about where the revolution will start, I don't tend to think corporate America. I really don't tend to think about advertising and marketing. And the idea that resistance could be something able to be monetized is not only plausible (given the consumer nature of our culture and just how much we honor/revere brands and the making of money), it's rather brilliant. Especially as the story shows that what corporate advertising/media excels as it building movements. Yes, they tend to be to get people to buy a product, but when that product becomes revolution and disobedience to a government increasingly mired in scandal and corruption, the results are...interesting. And all this while building around Corazon, a woman in charge of the push to rebrand Nike and in doing so also maybe change the world. It's a story that lingers on ideas of social movements and revolutions, both in their power and in their fragility. The forces behind revolution are often huge things—injustice and corruption and attacks on civil liberty and fascism. The story shows the personal risks that Corazon takes, the way that she leverages her position to yes, seek to make money for her client, but also to strike upon and give form to a movement that was struggling to find a coherent voice. It shows the importance of mobilizing people, the importance of letting people hear each other, hear that they aren't alone. For Corazon it is something she believes in deeply, which is only more dangerous in corporate culture, where genuine belief seems to pale before messaging and branding. Hope, however, never goes out of style, and the story goes a great job of exploring just how powerful a message that can be.

Art by Adrian Borda
"Queen of Dirt" by Nisi Shawl (Apex)
Notes: Claustrophobic at times with an earthy sweetness, this story pours a cloudy gold with some deep shadows but an even more breathtaking light.
Pairs with: Honey Bock
Review: Brit is a teacher, both because she wants to be engaged in shaping young people and because she has a gift to give shape to the magical darkness of the world. She has the ability to condense and give solid form to the incorporeal threats out there. Not just as a visual (though fyi, the visuals in the story are fantastic and disturbing) but as a way to fight against them. To give them a form that can be attacked. That can be defeated. The story focuses on a single encounter that Brit navigates, through the story also builds a world that is tinged with danger and a magic that is in no ways tame or safe. And Brit is targeted by this magic, by forces that do not wish her well, and is confined by them. Paralyzed by them. They take away her voice in many ways, which is something that is very important to her. Something she's always refused to make more acceptable for the benefit of other people's comfort. She speaks in dialect and she knows herself. And, in the end, it is her refusal to conform that gives her a new power. That allows her to break through the barrier that were meant to contain her, that were meant to transform her into something she was repulsed by. It's a story that, to me, is about her ability to make visible the invisible, to force people to confront the societal forces trying to destroy her and her students. The forces that she defies in part by revealing them. It's a wonderful piece that, even through its darkest and most suffocating moments, fills its lungs with hope.

Art by Alan Bao
"Later, Let's Tear Up the Inner Sanctum" by A. Merc Rustad (Lightspeed)
Notes: Pleasantly drinkable until the undercurrent takes hold, until the darkness begins to encroach upon the world and blur the edges of what is wholesome and what is good and what is safe.
Pairs with: Black Lager
Review: Not all is as it seems in this superhero story that relies on a series of found texts, video testimonials and journal entries and interviews and security tapes. It's a story that makes thrilling and compelling use of visuals to compile its body of evidence, as the narrative becomes. It opens with a rush of fun and adoration, with the awe of seeing superheroes in action, and yet as time passes more and more comes to light that has been in the shadows. The nature of power gets examined, and just what defines superheroes gets questions—is it their heroism, or their superpowers. And if it is their powers, how much to they fall victim to the idea that power corrupts, and superpowers corrupt superly (or something...)? The story doesn't exactly follow just one character, but instead reveals a team of superheroes that the world considers their protectors. Who are supposed to be keeping people safe, but really are doing something much, much different. It's a story about betrayal and revenge. About wearing masks. And about how wearing masks can sometimes lead people to losing sight of what's in front of them and all around them. Masks offer especially poor peripheral vision, after all. And for the characters that emerge from this ever-deepening narrative, some uncomfortable revelations come to light with regards to the so-called protectors of the world, and the so-called destroyers of it as well. It's a story that builds with all the power and inevitability of a guillotine being raised. As the reality of everything sinks in, the question is never if the blade will fall, but when, and how bloody the crowd will get when it comes to rest at the bottom.


"Curiosity Fruit Machine" by S. Qiouyi Lu (Glittership)
Notes: Sweet and thick and full of a rising joy but hidden under an opaque surface that reveals nothing until the first taste.
Pairs with: a Fruit Rollup—a mix of equal parts cherry vodka, raspberry liqueur, cointreau, filled with cranberry juice.
Review: Two people participating in an archeological expedition at an ancient human settlement stumble across a strange device and can't help but gamble with their lives. This story is amazingly fun, crafting a world that is laced with potential darkness and potential dangers only to showcase the tendency that people have to push past all that and push the shiny button, or pull the shiny lever. The characters here play off each other so well, one of them more reserved and a font of information and the other one...well, insatiably curious. In many ways this is a story about found objects. It's about these people finding this...thing that they can't explain, and they know it must have some function but have no idea what it might be. And so the story comes down to what do they do. Rigorous testing? Perhaps they disassemble the machine to determine what it's made of and what it's potential threat is? Or they could just test the damn thing. And the nature of the object, increasingly obvious to readers, makes the story that much more enjoyable, that much more fitting. That these people are arguing about something that we know about, but that they have to go off of what they know historically and anthropologically about our time, our place, and once that get's worked in then it's really not just a safe bet anymore. And yet the characters keep pushing forward, exposing this tendency that we can have to push past the safe boundaries. To make leaps. To take chances. It's a fun and fast-paced story that flows with the spin of the wheel of fortunes. 

"We Are Still Feeling" by Karen Bovenmyer (The Sockdolager)
Notes: Dark through and through with a taste of smoke and ash and with a bite like the memory of fire and blood.
Pairs with: a Zombie Punch—a mix of equal parts light and dark rum and half measures lime juice and sweet sour mix with a dash of Angosutra Bitters and a teaspoon of grenadine, served corpse cold.
Review: Kummer is a woman who can control the bodies of people she has known, and she uses this ability in a total war with robots who want humanity wiped out and their legacy erased. The story opens in trauma-inducing fashion as Kummer is pinned down in a bunker, hoping that reinforcements will arrive before the robots compromise her position. It is an intense read, visceral from beginning to end, and it builds a dark and terrifying vision of this future. The aesthetic is immediately arresting, mixing kinda-zombines with killer machines in a fight to death where the only things that humanity can trust are in some way organic. The story examines the costs and the impact of this total war, though, against a foe that does not fear and does not compromise. Humanity has been pushed to a brink where they are forced to become in some ways mechanical. Where they are forced to become weapons. And yet even as they try to emulate their persecutors in order to survive, in order to push back against annihilation, they find that they cannot shed that which makes them human, that which makes them feeling. The story of Kummer is one of continual loss where she must resurrect people she's known who are dead to work as meat-puppets against her enemies, and yet she still feels what happens to them, still feels everything, and that takes a toll. Oh glob does it take a toll. It is a beautiful and rather unsettling story that doesn't flinch away from showing the violence of this conflict, nor the true damage that it does.

Art by Elizabeth Leggett
"Thursday in the Ice Fortress of Zelatharia the Terrible" by Sarah Crowe (Mothership Zeta)
Notes: A transfixing darkness reveals an experience is that rather quirky and sweet, making it seem like you've drank nothing at all even as the world starts to blur around you.
Pairs with: a Volcano—a mix of equal measures raspberry liqueur and blue curacao topped with champagne.
Review: Being a supervillain seems glamorous. Volcano bases. Superheroes to harass. Governments to threaten while laughing maniacally. A dream job in many ways (okay, for me at least, but don't judge). What is significantly less a dream job than supervillain, though? Henchperson. Underling. Lackey. Stooge. Unfortunately, for those with less-than-rosy work histories, working for a supervillain is fairly easy to get into, and fairly difficult to survive. I love the way that the story looks at corporate culture and how it resembles the villainy that we would otherwise associate with people wearing masks and twirling elaborate mustaches. For the main character, it's just something that they fell into, that they find they can't bring themself to pull out of. Not because they like it. Not because it even treats them decently. But because the prospect of searching for something better is so draining. It's the way that employment can certainly go. You start it, thinking that it's temporary, thinking that it's just something that you'll do until. Only the until gets pushed off more and more as the world around you seems to grow more hostile, as the bills and the worries mount. And that job that you thought was just something to do until becomes something you're doing until you die or retire. It becomes a career. And for the main character this is a mixed bag, because it shows that for all one's ideals and frustrations, there's something of a supervillain lurking in us all. That it doesn't really take that much for it to come out and participate in a system you always thought you'd never give in to. It's a fun piece, too, full of ridiculous situations and wonderful humor. 


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

I am partly saddened and relieved to be missing SXSW in Austin this week.  While I enjoy going into the belly of the best and immersing myself in seas of people and technology, it is nice to escape the chaos and check it out via my social media feed.  While Marvel and other comic book publishers seem to be moving away from SXSW this year, I am happy to report that the tabletop gaming scene continues to grow.

Pick of the Week:
Ether #5 - Matt Kindt and David Rubin delivered a stunning conclusion to the first arc of Ether this week and I am chomping at the bits for volume two. In the final issue of this arc, we learn that Ubel is attempting to open up the connection between the Earth and Ether for his own sinister means.  The arc of this series is something to behold.  What started with a straggler who appeared to be entering the Ether in the same way one would use a hallucinogen, has evolved into a story of a man who fell victim to what he thought was his purpose in life.  We meet his wife in this issue, and learn of her sacrifice dealing with her husband and his obsession with the Ether.  I felt a real emotional connection to Boone and Hazel in this issue and really appreciate how much this series has grown in five short issues.

The Rest:
Batman: Rebirth #19 - "I am Bane" part four doesn't pull any punches.  The juiced up super villain is not too pleased with how Batman and others are working against him.  Batman isn't too keen on enlisting the help of Two-Face, Hush, Solomon Grundy, and others, but is still recovering from the viscous beat down he suffered in the last issue.  If this first issue is setting the tone for things to come, then there will be a stack of bodies in the wake of Bane as he goes after the Batman.  While this series has been steadily improving as Tom King finds his voice writing the Batman, but I wonder if I should switch to All-Star Batman and hop back on the Scott Snyder bandwagon.

Daredevil #18 - It appears that The Purple Children helped Daredevil reestablish his secret identity after the cat was out in the bag.  The Purple Children, of which their are five of, are the spawn of Zebediah Killgrave, a purple man who has the power to make people do whatever he wants.  Killgrave was working on some sort of device that harnessed the power of his children, and had sent a mob to collect the final two. These two ended up on Daredevil's doorstep, and the man with no fear was able to save them and now is attempting to stop Killgrave from completing his device and save the other three children.  It remains to be seen if Daredevil has the will to withstand the abilities of someone as powerful as Killgrave.  Charles Soule's run with Daredevil is rapidly becoming one of my favorite runs of all time.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Dossier: Heller, Peter. The Dog Stars [Knopf, 2012].

Filetype: Book.

File Under: Stateless dystopia.

Executive Summary: A pandemic flu wipes out nearly the entire population of the U.S., leaving only isolated survivors. Hig lives in an airport hanger with his dog, Jasper, and his survivalist neighbor Bangley. Hig periodically flies his Cessna looking for other survivors, but rarely finds any; when he does, they are generally murderous. 

One day, however, Hig discovers a radio signal coming from an old airport--beyond his Cessna's point of no return. But with little to lose, he decides to risk everything to find what's on the other side.    

Dystopian Visions: Hig pretty much only survives because Bangley shoots everyone he sees through his rifle scope. This is normalized in the book as an appropriate way of dealing with whatever humans you encounter, as nearly everyone wants to murder and almost no one wants to pool resources. Implicit to the novel, then, is the Hobbesian notion that only state institutions can prevent human beings from reverting to a savage state of nature.   

Utopian Undercurrents: Not much to speak of, frankly, except maybe the (very thin) love story. So love conquers all? Bangley also makes a friend. And dogs are great. That's about it.   

Level of Hell: Eighth. Postapocalyptic America is a straight up hellscape. The only saving grace is that Bangley appears to have a lot of ammunition. And a grenade launcher. 

LegacyThe Dog Stars garnered wide acclaim upon release, for reasons that are not quite clear to me.

In Retrospect: After reading this book twice, I've come to the conclusion that it's basically survivalist fiction dressed up with passages of New England-guy-sitting-by-a-pond nature writing. 
Sure that makes The Dog Stars more lyrical than the average "Doomsday Preppers" book, but have I ever mentioned how tedious New England-guy-sitting-by-a-pond nature writing is? And at the end of the day, The Dog Stars has very little to say beyond "people under conditions of extreme precarity will try to murder you, so you better try to murder them back first." 


For its time: 2/5.
Read today: 2/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 4/10.